Archive for January 5th, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Democracy can’t Buy People

I have no strong doubts that America will “only” be the second or third largest economy within two to four decades. In the meantime, while the trends will be suggesting that, many people elsewhere in the world, including Westerners who are focused on economic power alone, will start placing their political bets on China, too. In the views of many, a society where human rights only rank second or third and where democracy is deemed an unnecessary luxury will appear to be more efficient than a democratic model. Many will easily forget or push aside all evidence that democracy may be an essential human right, or an important practise to avoid untenable living conditions of the “ordinary people”, and therefore, in the end, a stablilizing rather than a destabilizing factor in the life of a country. Many people won’t see either that even under an undemocratic – i. e. inefficient – form of government, peoples’ livelihoods can still hardly drop in China. Quite naturally, the only likely direction is upwards anyway, at least for some time to come, as long as most Chinese citizens are living close to the bottom of their individual potentials.

Radio Canada International QSL, 1988

Radio Canada International QSL, 1988

I got this feeling when I looked at the German press online yesterday. An article by Niall Ferguson, first published by Britain’s Financial Times (now only accessible for registered readers) on December 27, has since been published in German by the weekly Stern, the weekly Der Spiegel, the daily Die Welt, and probably a number of regional newspapers, too.

Niall Ferguson’s article doesn’t look wrong to me, but it can encourage short-sighted views of the future when it comes to the benefits that political concepts, rather than civilizations, can offer, or the drawbacks they can cause. The main factors which play a role in Ferguson’s article are money (American current account accounts, public expenditure and revenue) and military power (Afghanistan and Iraq). Even if democracy never becomes something most Chinese people would appreciate and fight for – and among many of them, national power may be viewed as a sufficient substitute for leading a full life individually -, China won’t be an attractive model for most other nations. A country or empire may be powerful – but it won’t be attractive elsewhere unless the citizens can live their lives to their full potentials.

That said, Taiwan before all other countries will be in a difficult position, unless a majority of its people actually like the idea of being “re-united” with China. Their window of opportunity to have their sovereignty internationally recognized – if the opportunity still exists at all -, has begun to shrink. Will the Taiwanese test their opportunities and risk to codify their sovereignty internationally? And how far will the rest of the world – most crucially America – be willing to support and help to defend them?

For those of us who live in democratic countries, China’s growing weight poses questions which would have seemed unimportant only a few years ago. It is unlikely that the average Chinese citizen will enjoy our standards of living in the foreseeable future. And besides, it is unlikely that our standards of living will remain as high as they are. We will need to save more, and to spend less – not only in America. There are ecological reasons for that, and economical reasons. Rises in productivity can’t be endless, as long as we are confined to this planet. Democracy stabilizes society when its promises are sustainable. But democracy may stop doing so if the promises made by its political class – in order to secure their election or reelection – become unsustainable. This question about sustainability has always been an issue, but it must become a central issue in our societies. Democracy isn’t here because Westerners were better people than the Chinese. And the matter of sustainability isn’t at all lofty. While China’s social insurance programs are facing huge challenges, they are only promising comparatively small benefits to the Chinese people. Our welfare systems are much less challenged than theirs, but the promises of our welfare systems to their clientele have become a great burden for every regular employee. If democracy shall stay, we must ask ourselves who we want to be, rather than what we want to own. Democracy can’t buy people. Democracy is either wanted, or it will go away.

Freedom is not a matter of where we live, and it is no matter of nationality or race. But it is, of course, a question about who governs us, which economic and political system we have, and into which direction we want to develop. As China is a totalitarian country, led by a “Communist” party which wants to stay in power (no matter if that will require Communist, Socialist or Confucian colors), its growing influence will require us to be vigorous competitors in terms of political concepts, and to some extent, in terms of power.

It doesn’t really matter how powerful the West’s position will be in the future. But there need to be democratic societies which are able to defend themselves, and which can convince the global public that people only live full rights in the light of human rights.

Once China is a country with a p0litical class that works to heal, rather than to cultivate the mortifications of its people, it can – and maybe should – lead the world. Otherwise, it shouldn’t get into that position.


How to Corrupt an Open Society, Aug. 29, 2009
The American Era isn’t over, October 30, 2008

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